Dancing barefoot in Mauritius
The sun was getting ready to set over the Indian Ocean and a dumpy little middle-aged woman was sitting on the edge of the beach looking for shells. Mauritius is entirely circled by a coral reef, the sand on this northern coast of the island is slightly gritty and most of the tiny shells are a bit battered.
A gorgeous young black man, passing on his way to a boat doubled back, "Madame?" he said, fishing a really proper nice shiny Indian Ocean shell out of his bag. He handed it to the woman, whose frilly prose you're now reading, and kept going, on the vapours of my slightly baffled thanks. In many ways it sums up my impression of Mauritius after a five day stay - sun, sea, shells and extraordinarily nice people.
At 65km long and 45km wide Mauritius is small, but with 1.3 million people it's fairly densely populated. That population is a mix of Indian (the majority at about 70pc), African, French, Chinese and British, cultures and religions which live side by side with few tensions. Most people are bilingual at least, speaking Creole and French and many also have English.
It makes for a remarkably diverse culture. There are no railways so most transport is by road. Our group was based in the north of the island and the new motorway covered a large part of the ninety minute journey from the airport. All around are sugar cane fields, the island's main industry and in the distance loom great jagged volcanic mountains; there is a whole business around hiking and climbing these peaks but we were destined for sea level activities.
Veranda Hotels have four resorts in Mauritius and our first stop was Veranda Grand-Baie, a perfect start for minds somewhat addled by what had been a long trip. I flew from Dublin to Dubai, the buzz in the endlessly busy airport made the layover pass quickly, then another seven hour flight to Mauritius. A total of fifteen odd hours in the air and about five in airports followed by an hour and a half in the White Sands Tours mini bus to Grand-Baie. It was a tiring trip but the time difference of just three hours means jetlag isn't too bad.
The hotel, designed to reflect Creole style, feels quite Caribbean. With everything open plan, the bar, restaurant, pool and many rooms overlook the ocean. It is bright and relaxed. No high rise shoe boxes here, the rooms are in blocks of four or six in lovely grounds.
Each room is spacious and simple, a giant bed, satellite TV, good bathroom (though none of the hotels have extensive toiletries, many just have soap. Toiletries are available in the hotel shops but the range is limited and they're priced for tourists.) Wifi is free in all Veranda hotel public areas, but for rooms is charged daily at about 450 rupees (€10), internet is vital however because the phone usage costs are very high. There are still roaming costs to Africa!
Our hosts, Vikash, Claire and Clive showed us around, let us settle in and arranged for massages in the Seven Colours spa. There was something magical about sitting alone, very sleepy, post sauna pre-massage, on a sun lounger with a coconut palm waving overhead and the sound of just running water. It was a really good way to get straight into the holiday spirit.
In the town of Grand Baie we visited the local market, good for little gifts, the keyword is "barter." Street vendors sell mainly Indian style food and it is very good. Their famous roti wraps are 12 rupees (about 29c) and coconuts from street stalls are 75 rupees (€1.80). They take the younger green fruit and do some impressive stuff with machetes to provide a refreshing drink to sit with looking out over the ocean. After you've finished the surprisingly bountiful coconut water, they slice the flesh so you can eat that too.
Grand Baie has the best nightlife in the north of the island, the Banana Beach Club is famous for nights out. Unlike many other tourist-dependent economies, Mauritians are really friendly and open. It feels safe and the young women in the group remarked at the lack of harassment.
It is possible, but relatively unusual, to rent a car and renting bikes is also an option (they don't provide helmets) but although the roads seem safe they are often narrow with a lot of buses because car ownership is prohibitively expensive for many. We walked to a lovely Hindu temple near Pointe Aux Biches and White Sand Tours offer a whole range of excursions, from the sedate chauffeured sight-seeing kind to quad biking and horse safari trips in the interior of the island.
The hotels all do buffet meals, and all offer all-inclusive packages, including drinks up until 11pm, which can be an excellent way to manage costs. Each of the Veranda hotels has a different atmosphere, Paul et Virginie, named after a Mauritian legend and soon to be an adults-only resort is the romantic highpoint of the chain. The views from the hotel, a little higher over the beach than the other hotels, are just stunning and dolphins even obliged with a spot of frolicking.
Veranda Palmar Beach on the east coast is particularly suited to families. They have a big kids' club and a good selection of water sports, most of which are also included in the price.
They had transparent kayaks which, apart from being excellent, beg the question why are all kayaks not transparent? Palmar Beach also has a more enclosed pool area and great family rooms where a small room with bunks is attached to the main one.
The spa is small but perfectly formed. When asked about tipping policy managers said they were always welcome, salaries are low in Mauritius so the help is appreciated.
Each of the hotels greeted and dispatched us with a Sega band and fresh coconut and whilst they are all lovely my favourite was Veranda Pointe Aux Biches on the west coast. It felt very Indian Ocean, guests are encouraged to go barefoot, they wash your feet on arrival and sand carpets the whole resort. It too has a kids' club and 44 of its 115 rooms are family rooms, it has three pools and leads straight on to the beach where a couple were getting married when we arrived. There is an adults only section too. We did yoga and laughter therapy on the beach at sunset, which I have a horrible feeling could be on Youtube.
The Pointe Aux Biches spa, sadly but understandably booked out when we were there, is nothing short of amazing. Leading right on to the beach you could have a massage while watching the sun set, which it does, swiftly, at about 6.30 pm in winter giving way to an upside down southern hemisphere moon. Winter temperatures are about 23 degrees and although it rained two nights during our stay the weather was lovely and the mosquitoes were few. In summer temperatures rise to about 34 degrees. The best recommended times to visit are April to June and September to December, the cyclone season is November to April.
All of the hotels offer a rotating selection of buffets, from Italian to Chinese but Mauritian food is fabulous. Fish is a huge part of their cuisine. We had sashimi of marlin, parrot fish baked in pastry, lobster, prawns, fish curry, salmon terrines, all delicious. They also serve beef which is good but generally well done and they don't ask, which seems odd given the high number of French tourists. Desserts are an important feature and whilst there is lots of fresh fruit available with every meal, there is plenty of less virtuous fare on offer.
They have a good selection of southern hemisphere wine and many a rum based cocktail. I had no idea I liked rum so much but they have so many infused flavours it's hard not to find one you like. We danced it off afterwards, or some of it, to tunes on the beach and in Sega dance lessons.
We also got lessons in playing traditional Mauritian instruments like the maravanne and moutia. All the more for Youtube.
Mauritius really is very lovely.